The Russian Military Police (MP) ranks among the various structures developed in the context of the Russian defence reform, initiated in 2008. Discussions about the opportunity to create a MP arose in the mid-1980s, in a context marked by both the disaster of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and growing problems around discipline within the armed forces, such as the infamous phenomenon of conscripts’ hazing, called dedovshina, large-scale theft, and corruption, which skyrocketed throughout the 1990s. Despite several attempts, it was only in late 2011 that the MP was officially created, as announced by Anatoly Serdyukov, then Russian Defence Minister. At its early stage, the MP, staffed with 6000 to 7000 servicemen, was in charge of three main sets of tasks: ensuring and maintaining discipline within the Russian armed forces, safeguarding military installations, and securing military convoys. Imposed, like most defence reforms, by the civilian leadership over a recalcitrant military establishment, it was seen by the latter as an excessive intrusion of the former — the MP — during its very first years of existence that lacked both legitimacy and capacities to function properly and was considered by most military authorities useless at best and adverse at worst.
Moscow’s 2015 military intervention in Syria marks a turning point for the newly-created MP. Despite the fact that according to its official status the MP was not meant to operate beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, it has become one of the core elements of the Russian military build-up in Syria, together with the Aerospace forces and the Special Operation Forces. From the beginning of the intervention to 2016, MP units sent to Syria were merely carrying out tasks they were originally designed for, protecting Russian military assets and checkpoints across the Syrian territory, for instance.
However, after the Syrian regime’s December 2016 recapture of Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, MP began to play another role by being the de facto main tool of humanitarian and peacekeeping operations set up by the Russian military command. On the one hand, units from MP became the main implementer of the humanitarian aid (delivery of food and basic services) given to the population in areas under the control of the Syrian regime. In those areas, MP were also tasked with securing the return of Syrian refugees and ensuring public safety (street patrols, crime preventions, handling crime perpetrators to Syrian authorities), thus acting as a de facto law enforcement agency police body. On the other hand, the MP was also tasked with the on the ground implementation of the hundreds of local ceasefires concluded between the regime and rebel forces and brokered by the Coordination Center for the Reconciliation Center of Opposing Sides. Moreover, another notable dimension of the MP involvement in Syria ought to be mentioned: at least at the beginning of this « peacekeeping shift», most of the MP servicemen sent to Syria were North Caucasian ethnics coming primarily from Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Daghestan, and were members of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service. Sending soldiers from the North Caucasus rather than ethnically Russian soldiers is partly motivated by concerns over Russian public opinion’s relatively low support for the military intervention in Syria: the less soldiers Moscow has on the ground, the more the intervention remains politically acceptable. Besides, it turns out that deploying Muslim soldiers sharing the same religion as the vast majority of the local population aims at maximizing the effectiveness of the population-centric approach promoted by Moscow in Syria, along with kinetic ways of warfare (mostly consisting in air strikes) conducted during the first phase of Moscow’s military intervention in Syria. It is noteworthy to remind that such ethnic deployments are not a total novelty for Moscow’s military interventions: “Muslim battalions” also belonging to the GRU and composed of soldiers from Central Asian republics had already been sent to Afghanistan in the context of the Soviet intervention. However, the integration of these « ethnic deployments » into the broader population-centric approach promoted by Moscow in Syria is unprecedented.
Finally, it turns out that drawing from both the lessons learned in Syria and international practices, the Russian military command has come to terms with the importance of population-centric approach in the battlefield and in post-conflict situations, and is currently developing a related strategy, wherein the MP is poised to play a chief role.
This population-centric approach is an integrated component of the “strategy of limited actions” unveiled by the Russian General Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov in a speech delivered in March 2019 to the Russian Academy of Military Sciences and published by the Russian military newspaper Krsnaa Zvezda. In this landmark article titled “Vectors of development of the military strategy”, echoing to many extents another famous 2013 article by the same author , Gerasimov indicates that «The Syrian experience is crucial in the development of military strategy. […] The military strategy’s role was to plan and coordinate joint military and non-military actions of the Russian troops […] in the conflict. In Syria, for the first time, a new form of use of the Armed Forces formations was developed and tested in practice in a humanitarian operation.»
Over the past recent years, MP competences have broadened – it now has many more possibilities to conduct investigations and initiate prosecution while new units have been created, both within the territory of the Russian Federation and beyond, for instance in Russian military bases in Armenia and Tajikistan. Furthermore, the deployment of MP units as part of the Russian contingent deployed in the Nagorno Karabakh region following the November 2020 ceasefire agreement between Yerevan and Baku confirms that through the Syrian experience, the MP has become a valuable asset in Russian peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.